JERUSALEM — Israeli right-wing politicians and their allies are going after human rights activists, artists and pro-Palestinian voices on the left with tough new laws and scorching ad campaigns that reveal how deep and bitter the divide between the two camps is these days.
Officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative government are attempting to pass legislation seeking something akin to “loyalty oaths” from artists who receive state money. They also want members of nonprofit groups who get money from foreign governments to wear special badges in parliament.
Meanwhile, a once obscure but now viral ultranationalist group called Im Tirtzu has launched a social media campaign attacking artists, including two of Israel’s best-known (and liberal) authors, Amos Oz and David Grossman, calling them “foreign agents in the cultural world” and “moles.”
Im Tirtzu on Wednesday began naming people in film, theater, television and the arts that it says are provocateurs supported by foreign governments and such groups as the U.S.-based New Israel Fund, working against the interests of the state of Israel.
Opponents of Im Tirtzu described its actions as an Israeli version of “McCarthyism.” Im Tirtzu said, essentially, that McCarthy was right.
Yet even Netanyahu and national religious pro-settler Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a vocal opponent of liberal nongovernmental organizations, said Im Tirtzu had gone too far. “The campaign against the artists is embarrassing, needless and disgraceful,” Bennett said on Twitter.
All this heated rhetoric comes as the Israeli parliament prepares to debate a contentious bill next week that supporters say will bring needed transparency to Israeli NGOs, especially those critical of the Israeli military and its operations in Gaza and the West Bank.
Opponents of the bill warn that it could undermine Israel’s democratic principles and stigmatize human rights advocates.
The proposed “transparency bill” would require Israeli organizations that get more than half their funding from “foreign government entities,” including U.S. aid, to be labeled as such in media and reports. It may also obligate members of those groups to wear special badges when they appear in the Israeli parliament.
The sponsor of the bill, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, told The Washington Post that her legislation “has nothing to do with left and right” but is merely an attempt to force such groups to reveal from whom they get their money.
Shaked said that Israel is fighting against a global campaign aimed at undermining its legitimacy and that some NGOs funded by foreign governments are used to hurt Israel in international forums, such as the United Nations. When asked for an example, Shaked pointed to Israeli human rights reports that were used as source material for the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, which found breaches of international law on both sides. (The United Nations relied on nongovernment reports in part because the Israeli government refused to allow the commission to enter Gaza and refused to cooperate.)
European nations support hundreds of large and small pro-Palestinian projects, anti-occupation and human rights groups in Israel; the European Union is pressing Israel these days to go back to negotiations with the Palestinians and has ramped up criticism of the ongoing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank — settlements that Europe considers illegal, though Israel disputes this.
Many Israelis are put out by what they see as Europe’s meddling and point to what they see as soaring anti-Semitism on the continent.
In a recent editorial, Shaked said: “We have discovered in recent years the danger posed by the existence of forces financed by foreign money. We have discovered that hundreds of millions of dollars are sent to NGOs in Israel from countries that seek to decide the existing dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
Leaders of the Israeli groups targeted by the proposed law, such as Gisha, Peace Now, B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, say the legislation is designed to punish them for opposing Israel’s 49-year military occupation of the West Bank and for highlighting mistreatment of Palestinians.
Breaking the Silence is perhaps the most popular target. The group is composed of current and former Israeli soldiers who say their mission is to present testimony, often anonymous, to Israelis about the reality of war and occupation.
Shaked said the group exists to smear Israel abroad and expose the country and its soldiers to war-crimes charges.
Im Tirtzu, the group that charged that Israeli artists were disloyal to the state, recently accused the leaders of the left-wing groups of being “moles” in the employ of foreign governments.
Daniel Sokatch, head of the New Israel Fund, a U.S. organization that donates around $25 million a year to about 100 progressive and civil society organizations in Israel, called the bill “an ugly anti-democratic piece of legislation that does not provide any more transparency than already exists.”
Sokatch charged that right-wing organizations such as Im Tirtzu are colluding with the Netanyahu government to incite against the liberal groups.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, took the unusual step of wading into this fray, meeting with Shaked earlier this month to express American “concerns” about her legislation and suggesting the bill could undercut Israel’s standing as a thriving democracy.
Netanyahu has waved away such concerns and said he supports the legislation but wants to remove the special badges requirement (as Jews being forced to wear badges created a stir here and struck some as an eerie if unintended echo of the Holocaust).
“I fail to understand how greater transparency is undemocratic,” Netanyahu told reporters earlier this month.
The legislation appears likely to pass, though it could be amended in committee meetings.
Roy Folkman, a parliament member from the center-right Kulanu party, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he would vote for the bill — even though he thinks it stokes the “atmosphere of a witch hunt.”
“We think the law is superfluous, unnecessary and will cause international harm to Israel,” Folkman said.
Gerald Steinberg, founder of a watchdog group called NGO Monitor, said that “the debate is actually more important than any bill passed.”
Although he called the bill toothless and symbolic, Steinberg argued that the millions of dollars that pass through a handful of liberal Israeli organizations were worthy of scrutiny.
Sharon Abraham-Weiss, the executive director of Association of Civil Rights in Israel, said the bill’s sponsors may be surprised that some of the NGOs they are targeting do not receive the majority of their funding from foreign governments.
Her organization, for instance, gets 20 percent of its budget from friendly governments.
That aside, she said one flaw of the bill is that it focuses exclusively on the alleged undue influence of foreign governments — but not the funding provided to right-wing NGOs from private sources, including wealthy Americans.
She suggested that it might be better to look at the influence wielded by billionaire casino magnate and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, for example, who funds dozens of projects in Israel, including a free pro-Netanyahu newspaper with the largest circulation in Israel.
“Israeli government projects getting foreign funding is fine, Israeli organizations getting private money from abroad is fine, but only Israeli NGOs are being singled out,” she said.